korea

Why I Loved Teaching English in Korea... And Why I Left



If you’ve been following this blog, you probably already know that my round the world travels began in 2015 when I quit my jobs, packed up my life in North Carolina, and moved to the big city of Seoul, South Korea.  

For over a year I’d talked about teaching abroad.

I took a TEFL course after graduating college, and I’d started considering where I wanted to go… but even to me, the thought of actually DOING it seemed absurd. So absurd that even I kind of doubted that I ever actually would… until I did. Twice. 

Teaching in Seoul was a great experience and Korea was an amazing, highly underrated country.

Here’s why I loved it… and why I left.

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Throughout my time in Korea, I taught literally hundreds of students ranging from Western age 4 to 14. I wasn’t properly prepared, trained, OR certified to do so, but I quickly found myself teaching MUCH more than just English.

I basically taught everything, but IN English… basics like the ABC’s and phonics to subjects like science, debate, social studies, art, and even cooking. Though some of these posed a real challenge for me at first, they also made me get creative and put my teaching ability to the test. 

I really enjoyed teaching and living in South Korea. I was able to learn about a new country, got involved with local organizations like Teach North Korean Refugees, and learned a little bit (but not nearly enough) of the language. I discovered a passion for education, language, culture, (food), and a deep love for the innocence, hope, and joy that comes with spending time around children.

Unfortunately, for all the positive aspects of this experience, there were several negative ones too.

 

The education system in Korea is extremely intense and competitive. From a very young age many kids are involved in numerous extracurricular activities. They go from their regular elementary school to academy after academy, and, when they finally come home, they study even more, sometimes with an in-home tutor.

As a teacher at one of these private academies, called hagwons, I found myself going through multiple textbooks a month with my kindergarten students, giving scantron tests to seven year olds, and memorizing speeches with kids who, months earlier, didn’t even know the English alphabet. At school and at home, many of them never have time to just play and be kids.

In a parent teacher meeting at my third (and last) school, I had a mother tell me that, lately, her child didn’t want to study at home… that he seemed to be getting burnt out on phonics. This came as a surprise to me because this kid loved phonics at school…. Every day he would literally choose to practice writing new vocabulary words over having playtime with his friends. 

After spending hours at school (then going to whatever afterschool classes and extra-curricular activities he was involved in), I can only imagine that, once he got home, he wasn’t too keen on studying anymore. After all, he was only 6… and already learning about the silent k in “kn” and that “ph” actually makes an f sound.

A few minutes after trying to reassure her… since she seemed concerned… she then expressed that she felt he wasn’t learning enough in comparison to a kid in their neighborhood. This competition between parents is not an uncommon occurrence.  

Parents are highly concerned with their kid’s success… and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what some of them fail to understand is that more textbooks don’t necessarily mean more learning. Unfortunately, in my experience, the administration at many hagwons will cater to these parents and allow them to call the shots…. Making it feel more like you’re working at a business than a school. If the parents want more books, then you’ll find yourself cramming more material into your already rushed lessons.

The heavy emphasis on fast, textbook learning is stressful on teachers and students, and, overall, it isn’t doing anyone any favors. In my experience, kids who may have been incredibly book smart lacked skills like creativity, critical thinking, and were unable to work as a part of a team. They were afraid of making mistakes… a harsh reality that likely comes from not getting nearly enough time to play, explore, and just be kids.



I worked at three different schools during my time in Korea, and while the overall job was pretty similar, each one’s administration and organization was exponentially worse than the last. The expectations became higher, the pay and resources become lower, and my stress level absolutely sky rocketed.

At my final school I took a significant cut to my salary. I initially didn’t mind because the working hours were (seemingly) much shorter. I quickly found out that less working hours doesn’t necessarily mean less work.

Though I was supposed to be out by 5 pm every day, I found myself staying anywhere from one to two hours later, just so I had time to finish correcting books, writing comments, and preparing for the next day. This happened multiple times a week, but was never considered overtime, and I was never compensated for it, since it wasn’t technically “teaching hours,” (just the time it takes to prepare for teaching, which, in my opinion is almost more important… but, anyway, I digress)…

I was doing a lot more. Making a lot less. And dealing with a lot more bullshit.

This school was the most unorganized by far. The constantly changing administration had zero clue what they were doing, and frequently sprung things on teachers with little to no notice. They didn’t take into consideration the time or effort that went into doing the job and doing it well, and were constantly raising their expectations and our work load.

Though my students were tough to handle at times, they were nothing compared to the stress I felt working under such a disorganized and inexperienced administration.

 

“Comparison is the thief of joy” is a pretty adequate quote explanation of the situation I found myself in here…. because even though the school and its management were an absolute mess, I still really loved teaching and all the little monster students in my class… (even the one little bundle of energy and enthusiasm who couldn’t sit still, colored on the walls, and plugged the sink, intentionally flooding the hallway a few times).

If I hadn’t had my previous schools to compare it to, I probably could have stuck it out here… but, I DID have those comparisons… and I knew that this school was seriously ripping teachers off, and taking advantage of the ones who didn’t know any better.

 

Despite the negative circumstances I left under, I still love Korea - it was my first overseas home away from home, and the place where I met the love of my life. I loved teaching, and will never forget my students or the close connections I made.

Moving there and documenting the travels that followed allowed me to rediscover my love of writing, and uncover new hobbies like photography and video. Due to my draining, toxic work situation, I found myself with little time or energy to dedicate to these personal passions… so finally, after having two different directors, and three different co-teachers in a three-month span, I decided enough was enough and put in my notice. 

After roughly three years of teaching in Korea, it was time to move on…

 

I took a few weeks to detox in Vietnam, took advantage of some pretty big partnerships while I was still in Asia, then made a quick stop through Thailand before returning home.

I decided that it’s time to pour more of my time and energy into fulfilling my own goals and less fulfilling every unrealistic whim of ungrateful, parent-pleasing, hagwon bosses. It’s time to be closer to my family and friends… and to be around for the things that are important.

 I loved Korea, but it was time to leave.

It’s time to begin new adventures and take on new challenges… So that’s what I’m going to do.

 

So, what’s next??

Well, stay tuned, y’all… cause I’m moving to Europe!


*Disclaimer - My perspective of teaching in Korea and my decision to leave was entirely dependent on my personal views of education, and the experiences I had in my work environments. Other individuals may have vastly different views depending on their experience and the type of schools they worked in.

For example, teaching in the EPIK program is very different from teaching at a hagwon, and each hagwon varies greatly. Other factors like the neighborhood you live in, the status of your housing, and personal relationships with coworkers and other staff also come into play.

I have both lived, and heard my fair share of horror stories when it comes to teaching in Korea, but still believe there are plenty of great companies to work for.

For legal reasons, I’ve chosen to not fully disclose any names or specific situations I dealt with, but if you are considering teaching in Seoul and have any questions or concerns about the interview process, contracts, or specific schools, feel free to contact me for the full, unedited scoop.

2016 Recap - Part 1 - Rum Buckets, Sake Bombs, Beethoven, and Cherry Blossoms

When I moved to Asia last fall, I had literally no idea what adventures awaited me. Let’s just say 2016 did not disappoint and was, without question, the greatest year of my life so far. The places I’ve been, things I’ve seen, and people I’ve met have showed me just how beautiful this world, and this life, can be. It hasn’t always been an easy ride, but nothing worthwhile ever is. The truth is, I should have been writing and posting updates all year… but I’ve been known to be a bit of a procrastinator. Instead, this is a small, overdue recap of the year… and since even the highlight reel is quite lengthy, here’s part 1 of 4 - the end of winter and the coming of spring.

 

 
 

I spent the last days of 2015 riding around in tuk-tuks instead of taxis and soaking up the sun on the beaches of Thailand. I drove an ATV up to the Big Buddha in Phuket, played with elephants, and lost bets on Muay Thai boxing matches on Bangla Road. New Year’s was spent exploring the Phi Phi Islands. My friend from university teaches in Thailand, so we made the trip from Bangkok to the islands together. He’s as up for anything as I am, so, on a whim, we decided to start celebrating 2016 early on a New Year’s Eve Booze Criuse. Captain Bob’s Booze Cruise was an awesome time, and though I’m genuinely surprised that we all survived the day to ring in the new year, I would absolutely do it again.

 
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The first few hours of the 2016 were spent dancing on the beach, watching fireworks explode directly over my head, sipping rum buckets, getting covered in neon glow paint by tattooed Aussies, and, later, smooching said hot tattooed Aussies.

As the night went on and dawn drew near, the streets of Ko Phi Phi Don transformed from a lively, happy-go-lucky celebration to an all-out war zone. After witnessing what I’d equate to a modern day, rum bucket induced war-zone (literally - blood was shed), hot Aussie and I decided to grab a slice of pizza and call it a night. As luck would have it, my friend from uni had hit it off quite well with tattooed Aussie’s sister, and we ended up hanging out with them for the rest of the trip.

As with any trip, Thailand had it's ups and downs. Our bungalow in Ko Phi Phi had bed bugs, so, within a day, I was absolutely COVERED in bug bites. This was an important lesson for me in the expectations versus realities of travel. When traveling to a new place, you've got to remember that you're not SUPPOSED to feel comfortable there. If foreign places felt just like home, there'd be no point in going. If you want a real and raw experience, skip the five star hotel and book the $5 bungalow with the broken mosquito net and no aircon... and when the bug bites become unmanagable, splurge another $10 bucks for a bed in a hostel. (Side note: If you ever find yourself on Ko Phi Phi Don, be careful swimming at the beach on the Slinky's side of the island. My friend picked up this literal cleaver with his foot.)

 
 

When it was time to go back to the winter tundra that is Korea, I couldn’t have been more bummed. After a week of messy buns and no makeup, I winced at the thought of returning to the plastic surgery, rice powder compact capital of the world. As if on cue, when the plane landed in Seoul, I found myself surrounded by teeny cute Korean girls all whipping out their compacts and powdering their noses.

The rest of January is a bit of a blur. Not much else was going on once I got back to Korea… except for a wicked case of the post-tropical vacation blues. I went from being in a bikini on the beach to wearing layers indoors, and it was a really sad time. To beat said post-vaca blues, I decided to join my friend for Muay Thai classes. It both reminded me of Thailand and made me feel like a bad ass.


 
 

It was really hard to get back in the swing of things after having such an epic winter holiday. It was cold and I was ready for another vacation. Thankfully, with Lunar New Year in early February, it wasn’t long ‘til I got one. Though it wasn’t to a tropical island, it was my first time visiting Tokyo, Japan, the world’s largest city.

 
 

My friend Nicole and I met each other in the city for what was a whirlwind weekend of temples, sushi, weird underground clubs, and unexpected blizzards. Nicole arrived at the hostel the day before me, so she’d already met a hand full of people by the time I arrived. Apparently, everyone had headed out to a club that was *air quotes* "The BIGGEST club in Tokyoooo” *end air quotes*. The air quotes are totally necessary here because, though this club was sizeable, it was not worth the arm and a leg we spent on cabs to get there, to get in, to get a slight buzz, and to get back.

It’s true what they say about taxis in Japan. They are outrageously expensive, and you shouldn’t take one unless you absolutely have to. I literally blew a quarter, if not more, of my entire holiday budget on going out that ONE night… and it was so not worth it. So if anyone tries to trick you in to a night out at *The Biggest Club in Tokyooooo* say no… every time.

The rest of the trip flew by in a blur, as we tried to experience as many of Tokyo’s hot spots as possible. I went to Hooters in Shinjuku at 8am on a Monday morning to watch the Carolina Panthers, my home team, TOTALLY stop pounding against the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.

We tried and failed to see Mount Fuji. The bus ride to the mountain was beautiful, but, as soon as we arrived, it started to blizzard and Fuji was literally nowhere to be seen. I settled for making a mini snowman instead, but I am still not convinced the mountain is a real thing. I elf-style hopped across Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest crosswalk, and got attacked by pigeons at Tokyo Tower. Above all else, I stuffed myself with all of the fresh, delicious sushi and sake that I could handle. Overall, I had a kick ass time.

 
 
 
 

For the rest of February, work was work, and as if one work wasn’t enough, I picked up a second job. Three times a week, I’d go straight from my hagwon job to the subway station, ride for nearly half an hour, then have a 90-minute tutoring session on the other side of the city. Most nights, I was lucky to make it in the door of my apartment by 10:30pm. The 14-hour work days were absolutely brutal, and my workouts and healthy eating habits went totally out the window… but these plane tickets don’t pay for themselves, y’all (and neither did the 10 fish and tank that I made the margarita influenced decision to purchase. In fairness, I just wanted ONE glow in the dark fish named Jimi Hendrix, but he and the tank came with 9 friends - Yes, I know. I am very good at adulting).

 
 

At the end of February, the school year ended, many students graduated, and there was a mass exodus of colleagues who were moving home or to jobs at different schools. The preparation for the beginning of a new school year began, and so did that shit storm that comes with any transition period.


 
 

When we were given our schedules for the new school year, I was devastated to find out I wouldn’t be teaching my class of eight, adorable 5-year-old girls, aka the Disney Princesses. I didn’t think I could possibly love any group of students more, but, my god, I was SO wrong. Cue Beethoven class. My kindergarten homeroom class, and the most adorable little group of rug rats you’ve ever seen. A couple months in to teaching these kids, and I'd decided to extend my contract for the rest of the school year. I mean, look at em though! Can you blame me?

 
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When the year started, they didn’t speak a lick of English, either because they didn’t know what to say or were too afraid of to talk. Some of them didn’t know their English name, and part of my morning routine became reminding a few of them… but mostly just David. I’d say, “David, open your book… David… David…” *No response* “…David…” Then I’d crouch down in front of David, look him dead in the eye, and repeat, “David, your name is David.”

Believe it or not, David was lucky... because some of them didn’t even HAVE English names. One parent even asked me to choose for them! When given the choice between Chloe and Emma, I picked Emma. I’ve gotta say, it feels strange to have had such power.

The month of March was really hard. It was filled with blank stares, tears, and lots of little babes blubbering things in Korean that I didn’t understand. Imagine how hard it is for kids to leave their parents and go to school for the first time. Then consider that these kids were going to a school where they would be spoken to, almost entirely, in a language they didn’t know yet - Pretty scary stuff for a five-year-old.

The first section in our Language Arts textbook, (yes, LANGUAGE ARTS – and TEXTBOOKS– for freakin’ five year olds), was “writing your name” and “cutting out teeny, tiny, miniscule, way too small shapes.” I suppose what the creators of this particular book hadn’t quite considered is that a lot of these kids had not yet learned the letters of the alphabet… and that they definitely didn’t know how to use scissors. It was tough keeping up with the units while simultaneously trying to catch the kids up from square one, dry their tears, and keep them from chopping off their fingers, and/or gluing their hands together.

 
 

In the beginning, Brian, my shyest student, either because he despised kindergarten or had no clue what was going on, absolutely refused to pick up a pencil or crayon to complete his assignments. Every day, I would calmly coax him in to choosing his favorite crayon… a tactic that only worked 60% of the time. The other 40%,I’d have to pry his tiny, clasped fingers apart and put the crayon in his hand myself.

It was on one of these days that Miss Joy, our most frantic and frazzled Korean teacher, came running into our classroom urgently needing my co-teacher to write something down. Of all the writing utensils in the room… of all the writing utensils in the school… of all the writing utensils on the peninsula of Korea and the rest of the surrounding free world, she TOOK THE BLUE CRAYON OUT. OF. BRIAN’S. HAND. Confused, as he had been in the middle of doing his work when the crayon was snatched from him, poor Brian began to cry… and I’ll tell ya what, I almost did too.

Looking back on these early Beethoven class days is almost laughable now. The scared, sad, and silent little nuggets have learned so much, (today they learned CONSTELLATIONS for cryin' out loud), and, now, I literally cannot get them to stop talking. As long as they’re using English, I really don’t mind their incessant chatter because learning English is the whole point, right? (My bosses and co-teacher would probably disagree).

The remainder of March was spent de-thawing my frozen body, recovering from a hellishly long, freezing winter, and planning what would become an epically busy spring and summer. Baseball season was back - and with a BYOB policy, you bet I hit that up.

 
 

 
 

It was in April that I was finally able to fully retire my big winter coat (that I had only worn half a dozen times prior to Korea) in favor of my lighter, more trendy, leather jacket. I was so pumped to be able to spend time outside, and, with cherry blossom season in full effect, it was an absolutely beautiful time of year. April was the month of festivals, all celebrating what seemed to be spring’s long overdue arrival - The first of which was the Cherry Blossom Festival.

The Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, or selfie stick festival, was pretty cool once you got past the hordes of tourists with their tripods and selfie sticks. It was beautiful… but I was most excited for the festival that followed in Busan, Korea’s second largest city, and a beautiful beach town in the south of the peninsula.

 
 

Busan’s Haeundae Beach was the venue for an epically colorful Holi Hai festival. It surely doesn’t come close to the celebration in India, but, given that it was hosted by an organization called India in Korea, it goes without saying that it was pretty damn legit. There were authentic Samosas and the Holi colors had come straight from India.

We all started the day with very tame, well-planned, and carefully drawn face-paints, but, as the day commenced, our once calculated attempts at color application became laughable. After a few hours of throwing Holi colors, downing bottles of soju, and smearing actual paint all over strangers at the beach, everyone looked as if a rainbow had thrown up on us. 

While dancing on the beach that day I made new friends from all over Korea, Morocco, Spain, France, and, of course, India. This festival reminded me of the pure, raw beauty of this world. We were all strangers united by a common celebration – the hope for a beautiful spring. It was such a beautiful, HAPPY celebration that I was so glad to have been a part of.

 
 

A couple weekends later, I attended the Sea Parting Festival in Jindo, South Korea, which, you guessed it, celebrated the literal parting of the sea. This phenomenon, which happens each year, and allows festival goers to make like Moses and walk to a nearby island. Exhausted from an overnight, cross country ride, we all groggily stumbled off the bus, put on galoshes, grabbed torches, and attempted to walk to the island at dusk. People who started walking really early made it all the way to the island and back, but others had to be “saved” by ocean rescue teams. My coworker Stephanie and I were almost among the latter, but instead were with the many who turned back at the sound of a very concerning alarm... and then struggled against the rising tide to get out of the water. I found a starfish, and then went to take a nap.

 
 

April was an extremely busy month, but I’m so happy I made it that way. I was still working two jobs during the week, and every weekend was packed with things to do. I had little to no downtime, but wouldn’t trade these epic, once in a life time experiences for anything.

2016 was off to a pretty good start. Want to know what I got up to for the rest of the year? Stay tuned for Part 2 of the 2016 review!

 
 

ERs and IVs - Memoirs of a Sickly Waygook in Korea

At the end of November, my boss at work handed out our December calendars, and I remember thinking to myself, “I really cannot afford to get sick next month.” With tests every week, behavior reports due, open classes, workout plans, and a huge overseas trip to Australia for Christmas, I knew I wouldn’t have the time or money to be falling under the weather. I drank lots of orange juice, popped vitamin C, religiously washed my hands, and practically bathed my runny nosed, booger picking students in hand sanitizer. Despite my best efforts, as luck would have it, I’ve now been sick for the past two weeks.

Being sick sucks no matter where in the world you are. It’s uncomfortable, draining, and extremely inconvenient. However, being sick while living on your own in a foreign country… now that is an entirely different level of suck.

In Korea, sick days don’t exist, doctors and nurses only halfway understand me, and I’m reminded just how far I am from home (and that I probably should have learned more Korean). While this country does have an insanely incredible work ethic, what the people here don’t seem to understand is that if you don’t take time off to rest when you don’t feel well, you won’t get better, you get worse.

Though speaking induces a horrible cough, and I have almost totally lost my voice, I’ve had to continue teaching seven to ten classes a day for the last two weeks… and that’s exactly why I’m still sick. Which brings me to the nightmare that was today… day 14 of being sick, doctors visit number three in the past ten days, and hands down the hardest day I’ve had in my 17 months of living in Korea.

I’m genuinely never one to make a big deal about feeling under the weather, especially here where you're expected to keep performing at 100%. You drink some tea, take some medicine, and life goes on. I took my medicine and tried to rally, but when I woke up a couple of days ago with constant, extreme chest pains, I knew I needed to go see a different doctor.

 

Hospital number 1

I waited until today, Saturday morning, since I couldn’t take off work during the week, and headed to the nearest international clinic. After finally finding what I thought was the clinic, the man at the information desk redirected me to another part of the hospital across the street. Once there, I found myself in a fertility clinic and maternity center (because info desk man clearly didn’t understand me) … and then... I found myself in tears.

It’s hard enough getting out of bed when you’re sick, so just imagine having to ride the subway across town by yourself, and then not being able to find the right place to see a doctor. An extremely nice lady from the maternity center walked me back across the street (to the place where I originally started). Once there, I was told that the clinic was done seeing patients for the day and that their weekday hours were 9-5 (when I am working). Finally, they decided that I was coughing enough, crying enough, and in enough pain to justify bring me in to the emergency center instead.

After having my vitals and symptoms assessed in the Emergency Center, which quite comically involved me using google to convert my height and weight into kilograms and centimeters for the nurse, I was told that they could give me medicine for my cough… but I would need to see a specialist for the chest pain… at a different hospital. The doctor, who looked about my age, told me that there were many other University hospitals to choose from and that he was very sorry about my chest pains. It had taken so long for me to finally get here that I can’t even tell you how upset I was to find out I needed to go somewhere else… and the guy didn’t seem to understand me when I told him I didn’t know where to go. Eventually, he understood my request and wrote down the name of another nearby hospital. With tissues in one hand and the address in the other, I headed outside to attempt to find a cab.

 
 

I don’t know if it was the extreme cold weather, the fact that I was hacking up a lung, or because it was midday on a Saturday, but, (aside from leaving Itaewon after 2am on a Friday night), I swear I have NEVER had to walk so far for so long to catch a cab. The first couple of empty cabs that I saw drove right past me… and I can’t say I can totally blame em – (I don’t know if I’d pick up a disheveled, teary eyed, foreigner either). After walking for what seemed like ages, a cabbie finally picked me up and drove me to the Emergency Center at the other hospital.

 

Hospital Number 2

When I got to the hospital, the man at the information desk asked me quite inhospitably, “Why you come here?” I know he wasn’t being rude… but broken English sure does come off that way sometimes. I explained my symptoms for the millionth time, and he told me it would cost 70,000 won just to see the doctor. 70,000 WON! That might not seem like a lot, but for Korea it’s outrageous. I wasn’t sure what else to do, so I paid it.

From there, the day became a whirlwind of being pricked, poked, prodded, and x-rayed. When a nurse came to draw half the blood from my body, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t eaten anything all day. Thank god she very quickly put me on an IV drip, or else I probably would have just passed out right then… (perhaps then they would’ve taken the lone, teary eyed foreigner a bit more seriously).

 
 

I laid connected to an IV drip in a tiny curtain-walled cubicle for two hours and texted my mom (bless that angel of a woman for staying up way past her bedtime). She of all people understood that I must be feeling pretty horrible to actually go to the doctor for a third time, and on my Saturday. Eventually, she fell asleep, and my god I’ve never felt more alone.

While laying quite uncomfortably (because I had to lay on my side that is in extreme pain, so as to not rip the IV out of my arm), I’d hear the passing nurses say the word “waygook” followed by Korean I didn’t understand and snickers. “Waygook” means foreigner in Korean, and since I hadn’t seen any other foreigners around, I suspect they were talking about me. Honestly, this was the most frustrating part about the whole day. I don’t know if they were laughing at themselves for having to use English, or laughing at me, but the fact that they could laugh at all when I was so obviously miserable made me feel even more shitty.

A couple hours passed and I was finally taken off the IV drip and discharged from the hospital… after being told (again) that I have a cold - (I’m sorry, but what kind of devil cold lasts for three weeks!??). They charged me another 40,000won and sent me on my way.

 

Post Hospital Holiday Cheer

My time in Seoul is running out, and so, thinking I'd feel better by the weekend, I had made quite a few plans. The absolute last thing I wanted to do with my Saturday is be stuck in multiple hospitals. The one redeeming part of the weekend so far has been meeting up with Alexa, my angel of a friend (and a fellow Carolina girl – south, not north). The other plans we had obviously fell through, but when I told her about the day I was having, she jumped on the train to meet me for some much needed Christmas lattes before I headed home.

 
 

Long story short, absolutely nothing beats being home and having your mom take care of you when you're sick. I love traveling and living abroad, but do not mistake this life for a vacation. Being so far from family, and sick for so long, really sucks. Despite my recent misfortunes, I'm trying my best to still find the silver lining, however small it may be. I am so thankful to have family who care so much (even if they're thousands of miles away), and for friends who have gone out of their way to help me out and check up on me - (shout out to Alexa for brightening my day and to Alma for the home remedies).

As much as this whole being sick thing sucks, I realize things could always be worse, and am glad it's nothing more than a lingering cold... So I’m taking my meds, getting an early night, and saying a prayer that this not so common Monster Cold goes away soon. Here’s hoping that, when it comes to doctor’s visits, the third time is a charm.

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so let us all be thankful.
— Buddha

Snowy Friendsgiving at Daedunsan

Mount Fuji or snow globe? 

Mount Fuji or snow globe? 

Last weekend for Friendsgiving, a couple girlfriends and I took a day trip out of the city down south to beautiful Daedunsan – ("San" means mountain in Korean). First and foremost, let me just say that I have pretty horrible luck with mountains. Last February, when I visited Japan, my friend and I took a bus all the way from Tokyo to Mount Fuji. When we got there, Mount Fuji was nowhere to be seen because of the massive snowstorm that was plowing down on us. We took a few pictures (not picturing any mountain), and made some baby snowmen before heading back to Tokyo.

Last weekend at Daedunsan was no different. As soon as we arrived at the mountain base, the snow started to fall. Up until that point in the day, we’d polished off a bottle of champagne in bus-mosas (mimosas on a bus), sampled Korean wine at Chateau Mani, and even soaked our feet in a red wine hot tub. It goes without saying that we were not at all bummed when the snow started to fall. All in all, Friendsgiving weekend was a success.

(Pictured below: The internet versus real life).

I haven’t always had the best luck with friends. For me, making good friends, especially abroad, is like walking through a landmine. After having many a friendship explode in my face, I’ve learned quality trumps quantity every time. It’s more important to find the people who challenge you, inspire you to do and be better, and, most importantly, who you have a good ass time with no matter what.

These two beauties are bomb in the best way. I'm so thankful to have stumbled across them. Our photos look NOTHING like the ones I'd seen of Daedunsan, and the day did not go at all as I’d expected... It went about 1,000 times better, & the post-winery, suspension bridge snowball fight was the best way to ring in what will surely be an epic winter.

From Carolina to Kimchi - The 7 Most Culturally Shocking Things About Living in Korea

Last March, I took a TEFL course to prepare for teaching abroad in Korea. Day one of the course was all about culture shock, and, though I consider myself to be a fairly well-rounded, cultured individual, I quickly realized that I’d never actually experienced culture shock. Despite having traveled abroad numerous times, I was always either with family or in a comfortable, familiar place.

Now, I’ve been living on my own in Asia for nearly a year. Though I’ve adjusted to life here, and settled into somewhat of a routine, I still experience culture shock on a regular basis. Here are, what I consider to be, seven of the most culturally shocking things about living in Korea.

1. Squat Toilets

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There are few things worse than desperately having to pee at the end of a long flight. The plane is descending for a good half hour, and the "fasten seat belt" sign is on the entire time. So as to not be scolded by a flight attendant on the descent into Dubai (where I had a layover before flying to Korea), I opted to hold it.

By the time the plane landed and taxied in, I REALLY had to go. I was hoping for a quick walk up to the airport… (And that I’d be find a toilet even more quickly). After the seemingly endless descent (and the bus ride to the airport terminal), I found a toilet alright. It was a hole… in the ground - my very first squat toilet experience, and my first time REALLY being shocked culturally. I was so shocked, in fact, (and had to pee so badly) that I let out an involuntary “Whaaaaaat?!” and nearly peed my pants. To make matters worse, I was still following America's TSA regulations and had brought all of my luggage into the stall with me.

It's a good thing that I was exposed to squat toilets early on, because they're quite literally everywhere. On that note, I quickly discovered that culture shock is a very real thing.

2. Shower Bathrooms

Shock number two is also bathroom related. Since I was expecting it, my shower bathroom wasn’t so much a shock as it was an odd and difficult thing to adjust to. When my recruiter sent photos of my apartment, I noticed something that looked like a hose attached to the sink in the pictures of the bathroom. After speaking to some friends who had taught in Korea, I discovered that, no, I was not seeing things, and that, yes, for the next year, I would in fact be using a shower bathroom.

Some of you may be thinking, “Shower bathroom? What’s she on about??” Well, it’s a fitting name because there’s no tub, and the whole bathroom IS the shower. Basically, a knob on the faucet determines whether the water comes out of the sink or the shower head. Typically, I turn the knob back to sink mode immediately after showering (so as to avoid any disasters), but there have been several times that I’ve gotten totally ready to leave home and turned the sink on to brush my teeth… only to get completely soaked by the shower head. This sucks especially hard for someone like me who takes ages to decide what to wear.

At first the whole shower bathroom thing was SUPER weird, but now I kind of love it. There is so much more room for activities, it’s easier to drink wine in the shower, and my bathroom is always clean. Aside from the occasional surprise showers, the whole "Shower Bathroom" thing has kind of grown on me. 

3. Living in the Future

With an incredibly Massive Time Difference 

Blurry Face-time capture of sisters and friends still ringing in the New Year in the States, (featuring a very happy, but hungover, me on New Years Day in Thailand).

Blurry Face-time capture of sisters and friends still ringing in the New Year in the States, (featuring a very happy, but hungover, me on New Years Day in Thailand).

I thought I’d suffered jet lag on my trips to visit family in Europe, but it was NOTHING compared to what I experienced moving to Seoul. The 13 hour time difference was so tough to adjust to. Thankfully, because I’d spent two weeks in Ireland, my body had already jumped five hours ahead.

In the beginning of my year in Korea, I’d always want to stay up late to talk to people at home. However, I quickly realized that 9 a.m. comes quickly, and that late nights chatting with friends at home were followed by unproductive and exhausted days of teaching.

Drunk texting of any sort is even more highly frowned upon than usual. Whenever I’ve had a bit of soju, everyone back home is just beginning their day. It’s also super weird Face-timing or calling people back home while they’re out partying on a Friday night and I’m suffering a wicked Saturday morning hangover.

 

 

4. Korea Knows How to Party

Speaking of hangovers, NOTHING could have prepared me for Korea's drinking culture. There are no open container laws, so you can drink on the street, by the river, in a cab, on the train, at your local 711 - literally anywhere. The bar scene is fun, but my favorite place to drink (aside from the river) is a convenience store. It’s cheap, there are dozens to choose from within a half-mile radius, and they never close.

Soju, Korea’s signature drink, is both delicious and dangerous. They drink it straight… They add shots of it to cider… They mix entire bottles into pitchers of beer. It goes down like juice, but is essentially watered down vodka. I have fallen down many a staircase because of this deceptively easy drink.

Casually slicing limes and making tequila cocktails on the train. Illegal? No. Slightly frowned upon? Probably.

Casually slicing limes and making tequila cocktails on the train. Illegal? No. Slightly frowned upon? Probably.

My first staff dinner was basically a marathon of Korean BBQ and drinking games where the loser, or sometimes winner, drinks (you guessed it) soju shots. Said staff dinner ended with my phone taking a swim in the toilet, a wicked hangover, and a solid two weeks of being phoneless to follow.

Staff dinner number two involved less soju consumption on my behalf, but our Vice Director did buy us a bottle of tequila at the bar.

 

 

5. Personal Space? What's Personal Space?

Public transportation here is absolutely fantastic. It’s fast, cheap, extremely convenient, and, for these reasons, always busy. While the metro system is amazing, I will never NOT dislike feeling like I’m in a pack of sardines. When it comes to being uncomfortably up close and personal with strangers on the train, the golden rule is, “It’s not awkward unless you make it awkward.”

... But it’s not just the subway. In Seoul, the sidewalks are constantly teeming with people. Rainy days are the worst because the city turns into an umbrella war zone... though, I must say, the ahjummas, (old Korean ladies), are quite violent with their Sunbrellas on nice days as well.

To be fair, this country is TINY in comparison to it's massive population. Personal space can't really exist with so many people existing in such close quarters. I must say, I’ve become quite a master at bobbing and weaving my way through the crowds.

 

6. Couples Outfits

Though this photo was taken at Ultra Korea, seeing couples in identical outfits is not something reserved for music festivals. In fact, it isn't a rare occurrence at all. For Korean couples, twinning is not a mistake, it is the norm. It is carefully planned, calculated, and, to me, wildly comical.

I’ve seen some couples go so far with their clothing coordination that they even wear identical socks. I can only assume that the rest of their undergarments match, too (as, according to the mannequins at lingerie shops, this is also a thing).

 

 

7. I Actually Really Don't Mind Culture Shock

The term "Culture Shock" tends to have a very negative connotation, but, the truth is, after the initial mega-shock died down, I grew to enjoy the little daily shocks... (aside from the surprise showers - those definitely still suck).

There is nothing wrong or right about the things I've found shocking while living in Asia... they're all just different from what I was used to. It's almost as if I've had some sort of awakening - like I'm either seeing things with a new pair of eyes, or just truly seeing the world for the first time.

I will never not be a Carolina girl, but life in my small town North Carolina had started to feel like a habit. Everyday, I would go to jobs I had been working for so long that I could do them with my eyes closed. Had I stayed, I would have lost my mind. Here, life is different- It's interesting, it's stimulating, and, most importantly, it can be downright challenging. I had become entirely too comfortable at home, so these new challenges are totally welcome. 

Though the big city life can take a toll on my s(e)oul, (pun intended), it's nothing a hike up the nearest mountain can't fix. I am loving both this beautiful country and it's vibrant culture, so much so that I'm extending my contract for another six months. I've grown to appreciate the feeling of pure lost-ness that, these days, I experience the majority of the time... for, in every new thing I see, and each new place I discover, it feels like I find another little piece of myself.